Secularism has filled the vacuum left by the decline of Irish Catholicism

Saturday’s vote for same-sex marriage in Ireland is one for the history books. It’s the first time a country has legalised gay marriage by popular vote.

The question on everyone’s lips is: what changed Catholic Ireland into a post-religious country where gay marriage has been enshrined in law by the will of the majority of people?

The vastly diminished role of the Church has left an elephantine emptiness in Irish life. One very important factor is how ashamed many Irish people feel about the sexual abuse crisis. Perhaps the people who ought to feel that shame are the guilty priests and nuns. But Benedict XVI was right, in his book-long interview with Peter Seewald, when he pointed out that most Irish families had a member who had a vocation either as a priest or a nun. Therefore most Irish people felt very deeply the disgrace caused by the revelations of clerical sexual abuse. This was the case even if the priest or nun in a family was totally innocent.


Growing up in Ireland, I saw this first-hand, when a friend or acquaintance who had a brother who was a blameless priest, they would feel embarrassed to say that their sibling was a good priest, for fear that people would think they were “covering up”.

Humiliation and regret have gone hand in hand, and increasingly in the past few decades, the Irish, who have, by an average margin of two to one, legalised gay marriage, convinced themselves that if the Church was wrong, then the opposite of the Church’s teaching must be right.

When the Church lost power and influence in Irish life, that same power and influence was inherited by the forces of secularism. Have no doubt: the vacuum was filled by secularism: The Irish did not turn to another religion such as Pentecostal Christianity. When tens of thousands of people stopped practising as Catholics, they did not en masse convert to any other Christian denomination.

Jon Anderson hit the nail on head when he recently wrote: “Many Irish believe in Jesus in the same way that Hindus believe in Gandhi, an interesting historical figure.”

It’s not as simple as saying that the Irish have rejected the Catholic Church. It goes much deeper: the truth is that the majority have abandoned traditional Christianity and will not let it guide their choices and their way of life.

It’s a strange irony that the Irish constitution, dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, will now enshrine same-sex marriage. An austere portrayal that even the most formally Catholic legal charters for a formally Catholic country can be usurped by secularism.